The Underground Railroad / The Hate U Give

I’ve recently finished reading two novels about anti-black racism in the US context: alternate-historical THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead and best-selling YA volume THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas. I’d highly recommend both.

They are very different in tone – where Whitehead is formal or even majestic (though without being fussy), Thomas is all sarcastic first-person teenager, replete with sweary onomatopoeia, Harry Potter references and characters arguing about Tumblr. But they both offer important windows into a still-ongoing history of hellish violence and the extraordinary experiences of people who have been brought down by or else forged on through it. These are worth understanding both for their own sake, and because of what they can tell us about the country that continues to hold the power of violence over all of us on this planet. And they are also just cracking good reads.

Frogs, toads and despots

Some months ago we were gifted a book of FROG AND TOAD stories, pitched as helping emergent readers. I had never encountered this series before. I was very struck by how the author, Arnold Lobel, working within the constraints of very simple vocabulary, short sentences and sentence repetition, and using simple but evocative illustrations, created a surprising depth of characterisation and feeling. His stories are brief but highly memorable portraits of two distinctive individuals with differing outlooks but a deeply complementary friendship. (I am, for the record, Toad.)

Recently I looked Lobel up and discovered that he was a gay USAmerican man who had lived most of his life in the closet, coming out to his wife and children after a long time, eventually dying of AIDS. The beautiful snapshots of connection found in his fiction were, it’s been speculated, testimonials to his experiences of homosexual tenderness. His feelings were denied ordinary expression and sublimated into extraordinary work.

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Lately I’ve been absorbed in Peter Pomerantsev’s NOTHING IS TRUE AND EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE, an account of the contortions and confusions of media and political thought under Putin. It is both horribly, fascinatingly weird and also (for Singapore’s liberals and democrats) a little familiar.

It feels good to be reading again. I’ve done exceptionally poorly on the books front this year so far, largely because I find it hard to have more than one book going at a time, and for ages I’d been stuck on Marlon James’ A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS. I finally gave up somewhere around 150 pages in. I can sort of see why it’s reckoned good, but I just didn’t want to deal any longer with the reptition, the lack of forward momentum and the numbing brutality – which kept putting me in mind, perhaps unfairly, of the ‘wot u starin at’ send-up Edward St Aubyn created in LOST FOR WORDS. I’m sure some unflattering inferences can be drawn from the fact that I went from struggling with James’ mode of violence to finding delicious relief in revisiting the sterile bitchiness of the world of Patrick Melrose, but it is what it is.

The Gene: An Intimate History

I am greatly enjoying Siddhartha Mukherjee’s THE GENE: AN INTIMATE HISTORY, a fat, satisfying, humane tour of scientific history, ranging (so far, in the first 90 pages or so) through territories as widely flung as Mendel’s pea gardens and the constitutional rulings of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr; hitting notes as far apart as corny references to ‘Hotel California’ and elegant musings on hereditary illnesses within the author’s own family. Gorgeous and world-expanding.

Sorcerers and physics

I’ve been on a bit of a genre binge lately: there was the Walton, and then Zen Cho’s SORCERER TO THE CROWN, which I ultimately found both absorbing and unsatisfying, for many of the reasons laid out in this excellent blog post and comments thread. The beginning was rather too mannered for my tastes: the mysteries were set up in a way that seemed to show too transparently the strings behind the puppetry, and the whole atmosphere lent itself too much to glib comparisons to JONATHAN STRANGE (at points feeling almost like fanfiction). But once Mak Genggang and Prunella Gentleman came onto the scene it all came much more alive – though I never did find the magic as convincing as the social satire.

I’m now inching through Ken Liu’s English translation of THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM, which also has at times a strange clash of tones and registers. There’s the subject matter of Cold War US pulp SF (which was, I’ll have you know, basically the highlight of my preteen life) and sometimes even the strange abrupt characterisations of that genre; blended with the depth and interest that always (for me) accompanies the depiction of real totalitarianism; and then the fantastical-historical computer game exploration of hard physics problems that I can only, due to the limited horizons of my reading, associate strongly with Greg Egan. The last is so weirdly compelling that today, at a work meeting, I found myself suggesting that we might dehydrate a project and then reanimate it with water under more hospitable conditions. These creeping metaphors.

The Just City

I’ve absolutely adored some of what Jo Walton has written, but after the disappointment of MY REAL CHILDREN, I approached THE JUST CITY with trepidation. And while it had originality and humour, and much of its middle section was ambitious and absorbing, I found the denouement – and its implications about the central conflict of the story – a huge letdown. I thought there were immensely interesting conflicts being layered through the key characters – the three viewpoint characters as well as the incipient antagonists, Kebes and Ikaros – but those did not ultimately mature, and in fact Kebes was transformed, unjustly and wastefully into a kind of bathetic caricature of male possessiveness and destructive vengefulness. (Like Gale Hawthorne in THE HUNGER GAMES with all unsympathetic characteristics dialled up to eleven.) There seemed to be so much promise for the carefully laid booby traps for the city (the slave children, the workers, the Noble Lie) to unfold organically and ensnare it in its own logic; but instead it all detonated on the single trigger of Sokrates’ revelations, which arose as abruptly as some gloating villain monologue, and indeed relied on Athene unaccountably (after several hundred pages of barely-there development) assuming that kind of inscrutably villainous role.

I can, however, wholeheartedly recommend Balli Kaur Jaswal’s SUGARBREAD, which I had the very greatly privilege of reading as an advance review copy, and of blurbing. (Thusly: “SUGARBREAD is a warm and wry portrait of childhood, in all its intensity and its confusions, and a deeply satisfying exploration of prejudice, conscience, loyalty and reconciliation.”)

Just Mercy

This morning I finished reading JUST MERCY by Bryan Stevenson of the US-based Equal Justice Initiative. It’s a book that enlarges the reader, for sure. I didn’t know there were so many ways for my heart to break. Part of me wants to buy a copy for every school library in Singapore.

It’s not that I didn’t know, before, how dreadful the death penalty and the US penal system are, or how awful race relations are in that strange and yet strangely familiar land. I used to work at a prison reform organisation, so many of the issues are not new to me (something which made it hard for me to fully appreciate, say, THE NEW JIM CROW as a fresher reader might). But in the warmth of Stevenson’s stories, the directness of their no-nonsense telling, rather than academic or forensic education there is… transformative human connection. I’m botching this sell. Just read it yourself.

(I actually had the opportunity to very briefly meet Stevenson in the outfit I used to work for. I had at the time only a much sketchier concept of why he matters so much. I wish I’d been more informed of what a great honour I was enjoying.)

Children, Wake Up

This will surely destroy any vestigial appearance of literary seriousness I may have, recommending Star Wars slashfic, but I am absolutely loving the incredible work on characterisation in Children, Wake Up, a series that begins with three chapters of Kylo Ren/General Hux pornography (uh… yeah), continues with five chapters of romance, and is currently taking off with 28 chapters of political (?) drama. I found the huge clumsy “HEY THIS IS STAR WARS” elbow digs in Episode VII trying, but the reversal of the parent-child dynamics was an emotional masterstroke. The fact that Kylo Ren is mildly comical only made it all the more poignant. This fanfic series is doing a fantastic job of exploring the potential in that.

Otherwise, for the first time in a very long while, I haven’t really been reading, so there is little to report from the world of text. This is mostly because I’ve taken up watercolour painting and am mildly obsessed with trying to get the lighting right on some succulents right now. I’m sure literature will return eventually, but not yet, not yet.